What to expect from police academy training

Considering a career in law enforcement? This is what you can expect to learn in the police academy


By Police1 Staff

Of the many steps required to become a police officer, one of them is graduating from police academy. The police academy is a series of rigorous educational and physical modules that help prepare potential law enforcement officers for handling the demands of the position. There is no standardized academy curriculum for police academies across the United States, but programs will have many similar components. 

how long is the police academy?

While the duration of each basic training academy will vary depending on a number of factors, including location and agency type, the average length is 833 hours in the United States, which will take around five months to complete. 

Does the police academy cost anything?

For many police recruits, attending the academy is not only free, but it will also earn them a salary. That's because they have already been hired as police officers, and the academy, generally run by the hiring agency or the state in which they will be working, is considered part of the new job. These officers can expect to earn either their starting salary in full or a fraction of it, with the remainder kicking in upon graduation.  

While many states, including Washington and Oregon, require recruits to be offered a job before completing the academy, others allow aspiring officers to attend stand-alone academies, generally offered by community colleges and local tech schools. These programs do require students to pay tuition, which again will vary depending on the location and institution. The Basic Law Enforcement Training program at Wayne County Community College in North Carolina, for example, costs around $2,000 to attend. Some programs may also charge extra fees for things like the required background check, fingerprinting, application for state certification, physical evaluation and uniforms.

What is the police academy curriculum?

According to Dr. Steve Albrecht, previously with the San Diego Police Department, "the academic material is quite broad, ranging from criminal law, report writing, courtroom testimony, patrol theory and operations, first-aid, accident investigations, use of force, safe driving and firearms training." According to a recent DOJ report, a majority of recruits are likewise trained on identifying and responding to the use of excessive force by fellow officers.

Four common modules include:

1. Police strategy

Police strategy will be a very large component of academy training; it covers topics like:

  • Legal knowledge: Learning state ordinances, local laws, and constitutional law. Recruits will also learn about the basic functions and processes of the legal system. 
  • Procedure: Education about accident and incident investigations, incident reporting, traffic control and radio operation. Recruits will also learn about vehicle operations focused on operating police cruisers.
  • Apprehension and arrest: Strategies for the most effective apprehension of criminals. This module will also cover techniques for apprehension to minimize potential legal challenges.

2. Weapons training

Recruits will learn to use non-lethal tools like TASERs, OC spray and collapsible batons and learn how they should be the first choice when encountering an unwilling or combative individual.

Recruits also learn about firearms. Even if you’ve shot guns before, you’ll learn something new through weapons training. Just because you’ve deemed yourself proficient in firearms doesn’t mean you haven’t picked up some bad habits along the way. It’s crucial to go into this training with an open mind. Otherwise, it could hamper your training at the police academy. 

For those who have never shot a firearm, you’ll learn basic skills like removing the weapon from the holster, aiming and firing. You’ll also learn how to respond to multiple attackers.

3. Community collaboration and aide

It’s advised to volunteer in the community before becoming a police officer or beginning an academy; a huge component of public safety is working with your community. Topics covered under this module include: 

  • Emergency aid: Police officers often arrive first on the scene of a crime or accident, which makes their CPR, first-aid and communication skills very valuable while waiting for assistance.
  • Learning civil rights issues 
  • Negotiation techniques
  • Communication strategies 
  • Basic criminal psychology

4. Mental toughness

While all topics covered at the academy are important, one critical component of law enforcement is mental preparation. That's because you’ll be entering potentially dangerous situations starting on day one. 

The academy will emphasize the good of the group over the needs of the individual. You’ll also learn to deal with hostility, understand risk assessment and practice with role-playing exercises. 

As NYU Officer Melissa Ann McGrady explains, “Sometimes [in law enforcement] there are situations where officers go from no stress to high stress and then back down to no stress. We go from amped up and have to learn to dial it back down once the situation is under control.” 

It's for this very reason that the majority of academies employ a combination of stress training (i.e., military or paramilitary-style) and non-stress training (i.e., academic) to make sure recruits can handle shifting emotional expectations. 

Are there any physical requirements? 

In addition to classroom-based learning and training, most potential law enforcement officers will also take part in a variety of exercises to measure physical fitness. Some programs, like the State of California's Basic Police Academy, require the successful completion of a physical agility test prior to admission. These tests usually include the following:

  • 99-yard obstacle course
  • 32-foot body drag (165 lbs.)
  • 6-foot chain link fence climb
  • 6-foot solid wall climb
  • 500-yard sprint
  • 1.5-mile run

In addition to building muscle and stamina, most academies also require that recruits learn close combat fight techniques and defensive tactics, which offer knowledge in how to disable or restrain multiple attackers as well as disarm them when they hold knives, blunt force weapons or chemicals.

[More: How to train for the police academy physical test]

Any other advice?

“Do not get discouraged if certain aspects of the academy training appear to be too punitive or too demanding," says Maria Haberfeld, Professor of Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They are truly preparing you for what is out there, and despite the fact that this preparation is minimal, it should give you a sense of the challenges that await you and should help you develop a larger picture of what really matters.” 

This article, originally published January 2017, has been updated.  

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